Stilettos, Catwoman and The Dark Knight Rises

WARNING: Discussion of The Dark Knight Rises. Don’t think that there are any serious spoilers but the purists may want to give this a miss. There are also serious spoilers for The Dark Knight discussed.

The costumes of female superheroes are often the objects of intense scrutiny from various corners of fandom for various reasons. Anne Hathaway, who will be playing Catwoman in the latest incarnation of the Nolanverse Batman films, stated that “I love the costume because everything has a purpose, nothing is in place for fantasy’s sake, and that’s the case with everything in Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City.” The Hero Complex (spoilers at the source) has stated that in a scene they viewed, Catwoman was ‘navigating the steps with stiletto heels that, on closer inspection, turn out to have serrated edges capable of leaving nasty claw marks in a fight.’

Now, Catwoman is a thief. Whether she is a thief in the Nolanverse isn’t entirely clear, though I see no reason for her not to be. Barring the Batman Returns interpretation, her whole aesthetic relies upon the cat burglar motif and as a thief, what she relies upon most is stealth. By the time she’s been seen or heard, it’s too late. Anybody who has ever worn stiletto heels knows that they are really fucking loud.

And that’s without even talking about how hard it is to run in heels, how easy it is to turn (or even break) an ankle, how hard it would be to land from a jump of any height in heels. Anybody who has seen a Batman film or read a Batman comic book knows that they spend a lot of time running and parkour-ing across rooftops.

The ability to cut somebody when you kick them (something which seems a ridiculous idea to me in the first place) is surely secondary to all that. The fact of the matter is that Christopher Nolan seems to care about gritty realism with regard to his male characters but not his female ones. Catwoman is the first female member of Batman’s rogues gallery introduced in the Nolanverse, the first woman in the Nolanverse who could be considered to be a “superhero” or “supervillian” in the same vein as Batman himself.*

This is significant, particularly in a series that is severely lacking in women. Rachel Dawes and Martha Wayne are almost literally the only named women in the first two films and between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rachel Dawes receives a rather unfortunate personality transplant. This of course is not actually the case and the problem lies with the source material as well as with the films. Anyone who has watched The Dark Knight with more than a passing knowledge of the extended Batfamily and any investment in Barbara Gordon was more than likely appalled at the final sequence of the film with Two-Face and Jim Gordon, which focused not on Barbara, a significant person in the Batman mythos, but on Jim Gordon’s rarely-mentioned son.

When a number of photos were released, some bloggers were endorsing a ‘wait and see’ approach with regards to The Dark Knight Rises, implying that Christopher Nolan is someone who can be trusted with female characters, something which I don’t believe to be true. With regards to Batman’s white, male characters I have faith that Christopher Nolan will treat them well and with the respect they deserve.**

With regards to his female characters however, I have little expectation or belief that they will be treated with the respect they deserve. I would very much like to be surprised! But in general, Christopher Nolan seems to work best with female character when they are dead or about to be dead, serving as motivation for his male characters.^ This means that the issue of Catwoman’s costume takes on more significance than it might otherwise, indicating that she may well be being treated with the same level of respect that Nolan often treats his female characters. In a universe where “gritty realism” is paramount, Catwoman’s costume and its practicality becomes an even greater issue than it is in the hyper-real world that the comic books inhabit.

*I’m not counting Nolan’s horrifying attempt to character assassinate Renee Montoya in The Dark Knight. This actually works in his favour! The character ‘Ramirez’ was originally supposed to be Renee Montoya and DC refused to allow him to use the name.

**Both Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane have been white-washed in the casting department and the only POC in the films that has been treated with any kind of respect is Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox. Admittedly Lucuis Fox had been treated with utmost respect but in light of the way in which other POC characters have been treated this seems a bitter trade-off.

^Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, Mal in Inception, Julia and Sarah in The Prestige.


Loki: An Allegory About Internalised Racism

I really enjoyed Thor when I first viewed it. Like many fans I found Loki to be one of the most compelling characters and villains I had ever watched. Then I stumbled across this short post on Tumblr, and I realised why I related to the character so much. I read Loki as a character who suffered from internalised racism, and I know that experience pretty intimately*.

All his life Loki believed he was Aesir by blood. For years he’s been fed negative messages about Frost Giants – probably that they’re backwards, barbaric and unattractive. For years he’s participated in the Othering of an entire race (species?) and hating them for just being who they are. As the victors of war, Asgard would paint themselves as the noble and courageous warriors in every story and the Frost Giants as untrustworthy, cowardly and sly. Frost Giants are the butt of every joke. It’s clear Loki views them as disposable as everyone else in Asgard when he lets them into Asgard to be killed, just so he can make a point about Thor’s inadequacies.So what does he do when he finds out he’s adopted and biologically Jotun? Naturally, he manipulates events just so that he can commit genocide on his own people.

Maybe this sounds like a long bow to draw for people who haven’t experienced internalised racism, but in my opinion his reaction is a realistic portrayal of what racism can do to people of colour. I’m not saying anyone is going to commit genocide but that’s a lot of hate that’s being directed to people who’ve done nothing to him personally. And because Loki is a Frost Giant that’s also a lot of hate directed inwards AT HIMSELF.

Realistically, those negative messages don’t melt away the instant Loki knows about his heritage. No, what he wants now is to be accepted as Aesir “in spite of” the fact he is Jotun. Because of that he has to be more Asgardian than anyone else in Asgard. He has to hate the Frost Giants more, he has to be tough (not “soft” like Thor at the end) and he has to do something that will prove beyond doubtthat he is Aesir at least at heart.

Imagine if Loki knew he was Jotun from the beginning. His friends and family in Asgard treat him well, but still make remarks about the Frost Giants and how they’re an ugly race of people. They’d try to watch what they said around Loki, but sometimes let a racist joke or remark slip. And they’ll glance at him guiltily and think they’re helping when they clarify: “No you’re good, you’re not like the otherJotun.” Loki will grow up thinking he’s loved as long as he’s a certain “type” of Jotun and one that acts like he’s Aesir and goddamn, why wasn’t he born Aesir?

After he finds out, Loki monitors his behaviour. He makes sure he does everything Aesir, divorces himself from any Jotun-esque traits he might hold. He denounces the Frost Giants more than anyone else, he hates them and their culture and everything they are more than anyone else. He makes derogatory jokes about them, maybe even encourages others to do the same.

I read much of Loki’s pain and loss through the film as an allegory for internalised racism because I experienced it for myself for many years. Internalised racism is growing up with the message that only white people can be complex and successful and happy. Non-white ethnicity and culture is, at best, regulated to a supporting role for the privileged; at worst, it is outright hated, mocked and derided. You want to be happy right? Your brain does a little irrational flip and tells you the only way to be complex, successful and happy is to emulate a privileged person, right down to the racism.

Of course you can never be as good as a white person but you can try**. You can try to be better, and you can try to out-act their privilege. You can proudly distinguish yourself as one of the exceptions to the rule, the “good” type of minority that “acts white”. The price is giving up your heritage, distancing yourself from native cultural practices, from languages, food and clothing.

The emotional toil of loathing yourself stays until you come to terms with your own oppression. But the sense of loss has never left me. When I think back to how I was operating under internalised racism, I remember the positive experiences and opportunities I refused to take because they were too “ethnic”. I remember the deep shame of being non-white, my embarrassment of being seen with other non-white people and especially those who couldn’t “act white” enough for me.

I think about the racist things I did and got away with because of my ethnicity and I’m really glad I’m not that person anymore.

When Loki announces he wants to “destroy that race of monsters” you know, on some level, he’s referring to himself as well. And then my heart breaks into tiny pieces because I remember exactly how it feels to hate who you are.

*I realise that Thor is pretty white-washed in terms of casting and there are only two characters of colour, but nevertheless I found this storyline compelling when analysing it from a racialised point of view.

**People of colour who are able to “pass” as white will have to be a subject of another post.


Iron Man and the problem of Pepper Potts

Note: this post will discuss the first Iron Man movie but contains spoilers for both this and the sequel. The sequel will be discussed in a post coming to an SJL blog near you very soon.

Iron Man is, without a doubt, an immensely entertaining movie. RDJ gives a very charming and entertaining portrayal of a man who is basically unlikeable. He coasts along on genius and family money and seems to avoid anything even vaguely like hard work and responsibility and is basically a man at the beginning of his very own redemption arc. (Not, I would argue, a traditional heroic narrative, as seen in the more recent Captain America movie.)

Marvel has, generally, done a very good job with their adaptations (for an analysis of Thor as a feminist movie, click here!). Iron Man, unfortunately, falls on its face with regard to its main female character, Pepper Potts. Not assisted by an unremarkable performance by Gwyneth Paltrow, the narrative has nothing positive to offer us with regards to Pepper that is not directly connected to Tony Stark. She is Tony Stark’s assistant, a job that she seems to be quite good at, but unfortunately reinforces the distinct impression given to the audience that Pepper has no life and no personhood at all outside of her job and her job itself is all about Tony. Her only role in the movie, and it seems, in her life, is to help Tony be Tony.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an assistant, in life or on screen. Many assistants in many films and tv shows are amazing characters, filled with agency and interiority and power all their own. For instance, Donna from Suits, Mrs. Landingham from The West Wing, Patti from Eli Stone, Leonardo from Fairly Legal. However, considering the lack of overall agency and interiority that Pepper is afforded within the narrative it would be nice if they would have at least indulged in the pretense of having given her half a thought when developing the movie.

Early on in the movie, not long after he returns from captivity in Afghanistan, Tony tells Pepper than she is ‘all [he] has’. This is a rather bizarre statement, considering what else the movie has shown about him—for one, he has Rhodes (in a wonderful, layered performance by Terrance Howard, who was bafflingly and insultingly recast in Iron Man 2) and his work, which he seems to find fulfilling. For another, at least some members of the audience are going to be aware of the friendship that develops between Tony and Steve Rogers (Captain America) and that he ultimately joins the Avengers. She is most assuredly not all he has. She is, potentially, all the (created, non-related) family that he has, though this is never outright stated in the text.

Later in the movie, Pepper tells Tony that he too is all she has, a statement that, sadly, seems far more literal than Tony’s. At the Tony Stark Benefit for Firefighters Family Fund* she appears not to have a date (which is, without context, fine) and no friends or family are mentioned throughout the movie, except for some non-specific plans that she has on her birthday. Not only does Tony not remember her birthday but he actually states that he ‘doesn’t like it’ when she has plans. These aforementioned plans could be anything. Is she going out for dinner? If so, with who? By herself? (Also fine! I do this!) Does she have a date with takeout food and her television? I don’t care what she’s doing; I would just like to have some idea of what it is.

There is no indication that when she isn’t on screen, that she’s doing anything, which is the death knell of any character. Her job is Tony. She is not really his assistant, in my opinion. She is his nanny. Literally, her entire life as presented by the film is Tony Stark. More than that, it seems to be presented that she has worked for Tony for years and the question of why she hasn’t quit is never explained, beyond her being in love with Tony. There is nothing wrong with any of these things in isolation. There isn’t anything wrong with any of these things even not in isolation. If she did all these things and they made sense because of the way in which she, as a character, was constructed that would be fine. But they don’t, because she isn’t presented as a character; she is presented as an object to be desired.

This perhaps can be best summed up as the fate of so many women in film and television, that of the Love Interest. She has no life or existence beyond that. Every choice that she makes ultimately comes back to her being in love with Tony, which is pretty sad considering that Tony is a pretty terrible human being.** Not only that, but she doesn’t function into his choices at all. Even if Tony himself hadn’t noticed that she was in love with him, somebody, sometime, surely would have pointed it out. Yet he still leaves her to dry clean his one night stands clothes and escort them out in the morning.

Last, but surely not least, is the scene in which she literally refers to a woman that Tony has casual sex with as ‘trash’. It’s rather ironic, that the text and Leslie Bibb’s performance do not at all support this rather horrific instance of slut shaming. The woman is a reporter named Christine Everhart, a woman who is portrayed as being driven, smart, funny and has all the agency and interiority that Pepper lacked. We unfortunately don’t get a reaction shot from her after Pepper’s  ‘trash’ comment. (When a character who has about four scenes^ and five minutes of screen time—tops—has more interiority and agency than your female lead, you have a problem.)

There were some truly great things about the first Iron Man movie—RDJ and Terrance Howard’s performances, the display of Tony’s wit, the rather interesting story of a fairly terrible person who chooses to use an horrific experience to work towards his own redemption—but, unfortunately, Pepper is not one of them.

Coming soon: A discussion of the mess that was Iron Man 2, in which Rhodes was the only person recast, Tony is accidentally George W Bush, Pepper has a brief brush with agency and I ended up rooting for the villain.^^

*I don’t know it’s something like that okay?
**Yes, yes, beyond being rich, charming and handsome. She’s spent years with him. Those three things would have gotten old by the time the movie starts.
^One of them the most awkward sex scene I have ever seen on screen.
^^Not actually relevant. True nonetheless!